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Psych class helps test babies' memory

By Sally Jongsma

The ten members of Dr. Danny Hitchcock's Cognitive Psychology class paid four visits to three- and four-month-old babies last semester as part of a lab project studying memory in infants. Groups of five students helped Hitchcock replicate research to determine what a three- to four-month-old child remembers after one week by using a cause and effect game.

"Research shows that infants this age only remember the game for five days," says Hitchcock. But given a cue, memory can be reactivated.

Hitchcock and his students went to the infants' homes and installed a mobile on their cribs. With each baby, they hooked a ribbon from the baby's foot to the mobile so that kicking would make it move. Within two or three minutes babies began to catch on that they could move the mobile by kicking their feet.

Rachelle VerSteeg and Natalie Draayer observe baby Lydia for Dr. Danny Hitchcock's Cognitive Psychology class.

Rachelle VerSteeg and Natalie Draayer observe baby Lydia for Dr. Danny Hitchcock's Cognitive Psychology class.

"By the end of the fifteen-minute session they are kicking like gangbusters," says Hitchcock. The students returned to visit the houses the next day to repeat the experiment, and the babies immediately began kicking. Six days later, after the game was forgotten, students came back and presented a brief reminder or cue by moving the mobile without attaching the ribbon to the baby's foot. The next day they returned for a memory test, tying the ribbon to the mobile and the baby's foot. And sure enough, the baby kicked immediately, suggesting the cue helped bring back the memory that would have otherwise remained forgotten.

Hitchcock, whose area of expertise is infant learning, tries to help students understand the research that lies behind what they learn in their textbooks.

"We were trying to answer the question 'After we forget something, has memory disappeared or is it just inaccessible?'" says Hitchcock.

The infant learning example is just one part of a lab connected to Hitchcock's Cognitive Psychology course. For much of the semester students use each other as subjects to apply many computer-based experiments on mental processes. They observe, enter data, and analyze the results.

The lab is a new addition to the course.

The psychology department has wanted to give students more research experience for some time, says Hitchcock-especially students considering graduate school. And even for those who don't go on to graduate school, research offers way to learn beyond reading or hearing about it.

In the past, student research was concentrated in the senior capstone course, Experimental Psychology.

"There was too much to cover in one course," Hitchcock says. So the department has added research experiences earlier in the curriculum, giving students the tools and experience they need before they undertake their own senior research projects.